Kate the Kid Ch. 04bymadam_noe©
Kid blushed. "Yeah."
"Well, hell, man like him and you gotta be careful. Sounds like he's after you, and a man like that, if you're a virgin he'll get foolish ideas in his head. Try to change you, they all do. And what man wants a gunslinger for a wife?"
"Actually, I'm retiring, thinking about ranching."
Ruby nodded enthusiastically at that. "Hell, Kid, you could do anything you put your mind to. Best to stick clear of men and remember that. How's that sister of yours?"
"Little Cloud? Pregnant out to here."
Ruby nodded again with a smile. "I'll put out the word tonight, see if that other man ended up here. Where can I find you?"
"Hell, I don't know. I have to find my party."
"It'll be easy to find Rafe MacNeil. He's a legend around these parts, even if he hasn't been here before. A word of advice, Kid?"
"Sure thing, Ruby."
"Honestly, you interested in what MacNeil has to offer?"
Kid shook her head. "Hell, Ruby. Honestly, I don't know."
"If you got mad he didn't kiss you sounds like you are. Take my advice. The man has...a reputation. You couldn't pick a better lover, or so they say. If you're smart you'll decide if you're wantin' a good marriage or not. If not, take what MacNeil has to offer. If so, avoid him. Man like that can ruin even the best of women, ruin them for all other men. That's the real danger."
"Know him personally?" Kid asked levelly. Inside she was angry, and puzzled as to why. Surely she couldn't be jealous.
Ruby smiled. "Know his type, know him by reputation. Now get on, find them, but know you're always welcome here."
Kid pulled her jacket back on and took a pull from the whiskey that had brought in. As she left, Ruby stopped her at the door. "Kid? Good luck on your hunt, and trust me. A man like that is never worth the risk, even if you know how to protect yourself."
Kid nodded and slunk off into the night. Ruby was just confirming what she knew. All Kate had to figure out is how to protect herself.
It had been easy to find them, and a room had been waiting for her. Rafe was set on watch and she gratefully grabbed a bath and fell into a deep sleep. In the morning she made her way to breakfast where the other three waited.
She was clean and wore her embroidered shirt, feeling much better despite the aching bruises and wound in her arm. She'd chewed on Willow bark and the pain was now a dull ache, but still there, and her left arm would be too slow on the draw.
Still she set the whiskey on the table and ordered eggs. Three pairs of eyes just watched her.
"Any word?" she asked Rafe.
"Feeling like telling me who's after you?" she asked Jerome.
He kept his eyes down.
Kate pulled off some whiskey before capping it and took some coffee from the pot. Her eggs came and she was wolfing them down when Ruby hustled into the restaurant.
Kid waved her over and the woman scurried up to them, her huge eyes eagerly assessing the men who stood for her.
"What have you heard?"
The madam ignored her with a smile for the men. "Hi, I'm Ruby. Aren't you going to introduce me to your men, Kid?"
Kid shrugged. "They're not so important, Ruby. Not likely to make a profit off of any of 'em, except ol' Bill here. This here's Madam Ruby Jones, Billy."
He nodded and touched the brim of his hat. "Ma'am."
"Rafe MacNeil and my friend Jerome Williams."
"Ma'am," Jerome nodded.
Kid stood and took Ruby's arm, leading her outside to the porch. "What'd you find out, Ruby?"
"Seems someone wired Mulligan today asking for a hired gun. Seems the money lost two men, and he's askin' for three. Mulligan hesitated when I told him you was on the case, but the MacNeil name scared him shitless. Ain't nobody takin' the bounty."
"Next stop is Maxwell, New Mexico, they'll try there."
"You might want to talk Mr. Moneybags in there into hiring a shotgun at the very least. Mulligan is heavy artillery."
"Who's in town?"
"Mulligan and a few more of his sort, not what I'd recommend. Oh, and Dan Forth, Andy Wilkes and Ben Hartigan."
"Dan's in town? Well, hell woman, why didn't you say so?"
"You two old friends?"
"Hell yes. Point me in the right direction."
"He's at the Carter Hotel, last I heard."
Kid couldn't keep the grin off her face. "This is for Izzy, he'll work cheap."
"Kid, before you go off, after seeing MacNeil I take back what I said last night. A man like him is nothing but dangerous, keep your distance. Saw him watching you like a coyote after a bunny."
"I can take 'im, Ruby." Kid scoffed, too happy at the prospect of a friend to accept any dire warnings.
"In a gun fight, hell, maybe, but when it comes to love I seriously doubt it."
"L-" Kid couldn't even get it out. She laughed, long and hard, feeling some tension bleed out. "Hell Ruby, you of all people should know that's an illusion for people like us. Izzy and Mr. Moneybags? That's real. The rest of us just take what we can get."
"You're too damn young to be so jaded, Kid."
"Hey, when you were my age you founded your establishment and I bet you were twice as jaded."
"That's just it. Find a nice man, settle down, ranch. Get out of this life. Don't end up like me, Kid. You're too bright a star."
Staring down the road Kid sighed. "Thanks, Ruby. Can you do me another favor?"
Ruby ruffled her fan against her face. "Only for you at this ungodly hour."
"Roust Dan and tell him Kid has a paying job, the money's from Izzy's man."
"Can do. You authorized to hire people, Kid?"
Ruby laughed and stepped off the porch. "Oh, and Kid?"
"When you do settle down I want to be the first to know. You're gonna be damn hard to replace. You're a dying breed. Hell, maybe I'll hire MacNeil."
Kid laughed and turned back inside.
"Absolutely not!" Rafe underscored his point with a slap to the table, making the other patrons jump. He did not want Kate's people outnumbering him.
Kate just gave him her unreadable look and glanced at Jerome. "It's your ass I'm looking out for. I'll feel a whole helluva lot better with a trusted man on shotgun. Forth is the best and we'll need it. Serious money is out there. They tried to hire Mulligan."
"They? Mulligan?" Rafe sat up. "Did Mulligan take it?"
"Not once he heard your name, MacNeil. Nobody here has, but that only means there's trouble waiting in Sayre. Now we have three choices. One, you tell me who's after you and I send Forth out to get 'em. Two, we stick to the towns and try to flush them out before we hit Frisco. Or three, we stay off the roads and hope we just lose 'em.
"Now as Isabella is my highest priority I vote for the first one."
Jerome looked at Rafe who just scowled.
"We don't know if anyone is after Jerome. Business deals fall through all the time. But nothing so big as to hunt him through the west."
"Fine, keep mum. I have no choice but to insist on this man. He'll be worth every penny, Jerome."
"Three hundred, less if he rousts 'em before Frisco."
Rafe felt his stomach lurch. "Jerome-"
"Given those two men the other day how can you argue?"
Rafe just stood up and calmly walked out, in search of fresh air and a smoke. Pulling a cheroot from his pocket he lit up and clenched his fist. Damn it, Jerome had asked for his help because of his expertise and now he was refusing it. Undone by a mere slip of a girl. It was too much.
He made sure the fresh team was harnessed and brought the coach around just to keep busy. He wanted his own mount something fierce but he knew Kate would ride inside with Jerome if Rafe was riding solo. And his friend would spill every detail if he wasn't there to chaperone.
Kate was looking for money to retire, or so he'd been told when he checked around. If she sold out Jerome there would be more than enough. Did she really love Isabella so much she'd protect the man who was taking her friend away?
"Thanks," Billy nodded, climbing up.
Rafe nodded and dropped down, heading inside for his bags. When he came out he saw a sight that set his teeth on end.
Forth was tall, almost as tall as he, and blonde. He had a pretty face, dark eyes, and a crooked, wide smile. He was tanned and weathered, obviously an outdoors man. And he only had eyes for Kate who ran into his arms, jumped up, and wrapped her legs around his waist.
Rafe pulled his cigarillo from his lips and ground it to a pulp in his hand.
Jerome stepped out with a chuckle. "At last, the woman who can ignore you for another man. I never thought I'd live to see this day."
"Shut up, Jerome. Has it not occurred to you that this man could be her lover? You're worth a helluva lot to kidnappers."
His friend turned to him with that look in his eye that made all other men back a step away. "Isabella swears by her and I trust her with my life. Perhaps now that we have Kid's friend we don't need you to keep going."
Rafe would be damned before he let a friend go off into the wilds alone with a woman he couldn't get a clear read on. He understood the threat and backed down.
"I'll keep my peace, Jerome."
Kate walked over. "Dan Forth this is Mr. Jerome Williams, Izzy's fiancé, and his friend Rafe MacNeil."
"Williams." Dan shook his hand firmly and turned to Rafe. "Not the Rafe MacNeil?"
"In the flesh." He squeezed Dan's hand tightly but the man didn't flinch.
"So you need a man to ride shotgun. No problem. But Mr. Williams, you already have two of the best in the business, why do you need a third?"
Jerome just shrugged.
"Better safe than sorry, junior."
Dan gave him a knowing smile and shook his head. "What the hell. Anything for Izzy and the Kid."
"You old friends?"
"Kid and I go way back. Izzy is the most recent addition to our little circle. Mr. Williams, you couldn't have chosen a better woman."
"Indeed." Jerome offered a genuine smile.
"So what is it, exactly, that you do Mr. Forth?"
"This, that, the other. Same as you. Same as the Kid."
Rafe scowled at their casual closeness, Forth's arm around Kate's shoulders.
Kate shook her head. "We need to get moving. Sayre is a long way off and I want to make it before it's too late. Everybody ready?"
The men nodded and boarded the coach. Kate smoothly climbed up on Sweetwater, surprising Rafe. They rolled off heading west at their lumbering pace.
Rafe watched Kate glance back at the coach with a rare smile for Dan and knew the next few weeks were going to be murder.